barriers to entry

How can New York City fix its high school admissions system? Experts weigh in

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A panel of experts discusses how to improve the high school admissions process.

The city’s choice-based high school admissions system should, in theory, allow students to apply to any school in New York City and then deliver each a good match. But as any city eighth-grader can attest, the reality on the ground is far more complicated.

There are over different 400 high schools, with admissions governed by a confusing set of policies. It’s difficult for any student to navigate the system, but even harder for those without well-informed guidance counselors, savvy families, or English language skills.

With that in mind, panels of experts, put together by the Fordham Law School’s Feerick Center for Social Justice, gathered Tuesday to talk about what can be done. The following are some of their suggestions.

Idea #1: Reduce screened programs, add more educational option schools

A number of panelists argued that the high school system is unbalanced and needs a serious shake-up.

Some said the city should reduce the number of screened programs, which can choose students based on factors including grades, attendance, interviews or portfolios. Screened programs currently comprise about a third of high school programs in the city, while lower-performing students are clustered in the remaining schools.

“One of the biggest issues with this process is the screened programs,” said Shalema Henderson, assistant director of youth initiatives at College Access: Research and Action, a local nonprofit. “It just has kind of perpetuated the inequity that exists in the schools.”

In place of screened programs, panelists suggested the city create more “educational option” programs, which are designed to enroll students at different academic levels. They currently make up about 23 percent of school programs.

City officials at the conference appeared open to this idea. Representatives from the Department of Education said they have not created any screened programs since 2014, and they have been looking for ways to add educational option programs.

Idea #2: Get rid of priority groups

Some schools give admissions priority for certain subgroups of students, such as those who live within geographic areas or attend open houses. But earning priority can present challenges for low-income families, panelists said.

Chalkbeat has reported that attending an open house, for example, takes time, job flexibility and English skills that many disadvantaged families don’t have.

Another contentious priority group is comprised of students who live in District 2 in Manhattan, a relatively wealthy district that includes most of Manhattan and has some of the most sought-after schools in the city. Since many of the slots at its top schools go to District 2 residents, students from other, less wealthy areas of the city are effectively shut out, critics argue.

The Department of Education indicated that getting rid of District 2 priority would take more time and discussion.

“All of these things that represent historical practice … are going to take a long time to move,” said Amy Basile, director of high school admissions for the department. “And it’s going to take a lot of community involvement.”

Idea #3: Support for middle schools, parents

Middle schools are key to helping students navigate the high school admissions process, but often school staff — particularly guidance counselors — do not have the support, knowledge or time they need to fully help students through the process, panelists said.

Basile sees potential to utilize “College Access for All,” a new initiative started under Mayor Bill de Blasio, to galvanize resources and make admissions a more structured part of the school curriculum.

The city is also trying to increase transparency for families. For the first time this year, the High School Directory includes the percentage of students who received priority at each school and the actual GPA ranges of students who were admitted to the schools. The city also started a new website where students can search for information about schools.

Megan Moskop, a teacher and high school admissions coordinator at M.S. 324 in Manhattan, is running a class for her eighth-grade students on high school admissions.

Moskop praised the DOE for helping to craft the curriculum, but she said there is a limit to its potential success. While some students have supportive families, who keep spreadsheets of schools and visit as many as 10 open houses, others are new arrivals to the country barely managing to navigate the shelter system, she said. One class alone is not enough to level the playing field, she added.

“What I’m finding is, even with all those resources and guidelines and set structures, the process is too much to navigate for many of my eighth-graders,” Moskop said.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

now hiring

Wanted: An enrollment chief who can help New York City meet its school diversity goals

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A high-school choice fair in Brooklyn in 2016.

The education department is in the market for a high-level official who will oversee enrollment decisions with an eye toward diversity.

Rob Sanft, who has led the Office of Student Enrollment for the last seven years, is stepping down. His replacement will be responsible for helping Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education department implement a plan, released last June, to boost school diversity.

The senior executive director of enrollment “will be expected to drive forward the vision of school diversity, in collaboration with other DOE offices,” according to the listing.

The enrollment chief has already been central to the city’s diversity initiatives. Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said in a statement that Sanft has already worked to end limited unscreened high school admissions, which can present barriers to students, and to change the way students are assigned to middle schools. Both were moves laid out in the city’s diversity plan.

“He has led reforms that make student enrollment easier and more equitable for hundreds of thousands of families every year,” Wallack said.

As more of the city’s diversity initiatives get off the ground, Wallack said integration issues will comprise an even larger role for the new enrollment chief. That only adds to the enormous responsibility of the office, which handles the city’s complicated high school admissions process and competitive gifted and talented program.

Integration advocates have called on the Department of Education to put a high-ranking official in charge of desegregation efforts. While that has yet to happen, Matt Gonzales, who heads integration efforts for the nonprofit New York Appleseed, found the city’s job posting encouraging.

“I think the fact that DOE is embedding a priority towards diversity into the job description of such an important role signifies a real investment in this work,” Gonzales wrote in an email.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, said advocates will keep an eye on who ultimately gets tapped for the position.

“Before we declare victory,” he wrote in an email, “I am curious about their background, their diversity status, their commitments to equity and integration, their willingness to work with the broader community to resolve issues.”